How do you know what your dog knows?

Several years ago, I was practicing an off-leash recall with my dog, Arrow.  We were at a training center which was a familiar, comfortable place for him.  I asked him to sit and walked about 15 yards away, turned to face him, waited several seconds, and then gave my whistle cue – dee DEE DEE, dee DEE DEE – Arrow just sat there.

Arrow waits for a cue

What the heck was going on??  I had always had a quick and consistent response to the whistle in many different environments.  This cue should have been a piece of cake for him. After several seconds, I repeated the whistle cue and he came running to me as usual.  Two people were watching us, waiting a turn to use the large space we were working in.  I asked them “why didn’t he come the first time?”  They both said “your whistle sounded different, the rhythm was not right”.   I always try to be consistent in how I blow the whistle, and yet I hadn’t realized that I had muffed my cue.  And I clearly didn’t really know what my dog knew.

Arrow responds to a cue
How do I know when my dog knows it?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions I get.  The answer is that we NEVER really know what is inside our dog’s head.  We can only observe what they do outwardly, and make inferences about what they think.  We CAN train a cue in a variety of situations and carefully assess the dog’s responses and body language; then use that information to plan future training sessions.
How to ask your dog what he knows
As soon as your dog responds reliably to a few cues taught with positive reinforcement, make it a part of your training sessions to give him a quiz.  Just like a person, you can assess the dog’s “knowledge” by giving him a test.  Working in a location where your dog is comfortable, get his attention and give him a cue.  How does he respond?  Quickly, with enthusiasm, the first time you give the cue?  Try another cue – does he respond correctly?  Repeat the first cue, take a short break, move around a bit, try some more cues that you think he “knows”.   Keep track of your dog’s response rate:

Correct responses/Cues given x 100 = percentage of correct responses
If I cue my dog 8 times to sit, and he responds correctly 7 times, that is a 86%% response rate. 
80% correct is a good level of reliability, but maybe you want more – then train for what you want your dog to be able to do.

And what about the three Ds:  distractions,  distance, duration?  My dog’s ability to respond depends greatly on the level of distraction in the environment, the distance away from me, and the duration of behavior I ask for.  Just because your dog comes when called 90% of the time when you cue him in your backyard, it doesn’t mean he will be able to respond when he is off leash 20 feet away at the dog park playing with another dog.  You can say “he just doesn’t want to”, but all you really know is that he doesn’t.

Set yourself up for success when you start to add distractions, duration, or distance to any of your cues.  When your dog is 80% or more reliable on responding to a cue inside with minimal distractions, start adding some low level distraction.  Don’t increase your distance away or add duration (length of time the behavior lasts) yet.  Get reliability with a medium level of distraction, then add some distance OR duration – but go back to minimal distraction.  Just make one “D” more difficult at a time, until you have reliability, then add another “D”.  Build upon your success.

What do you think your dog knows?  Let me know – comment below!

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